Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Soul of the Future: Pulp Fiction

“Looking back upon the place, it may have been a ghetto, but it was a golden ghetto, a place of brotherhood and opportunity and wonder. Before Gernsback, there were science fiction stories. After Gernsback, there was a science fiction genre.”
James Gunn

The turn of the twentieth century saw an outburst of inventions that would transform ordinary life. But for awhile, the automobile was mostly a plaything of the urban rich, motion pictures were as yet sporadically seen (the first Nickelodeon devoted exclusively to movies opened in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905) and airplanes were an infrequent curiosity.

But radio sets were a miracle that individuals could put together and own. Years before there was a single commercial broadcast station (again in Pittsburgh, in 1920) there were thousands of radio enthusiasts in the United States alone, sending and receiving radio signals.

One of them was a European immigrant with the ungainly name of Hugo Gernsback. His enthusiasm for new technologies began when as a boy in Luxembourg he wired his family home for electricity. He was also fascinated with American culture, particularly Wild West stories. After studying electrical engineering at a German university, he emigrated to the United States in 1904.

He went into business importing European radio equipment for sale to American radio hobbyists. The association of amateur radio buffs he started in 1909 immediately attracted 10,000 members, and multiplied from there. He sold radio kits and published manuals and catalogs for them. They began including articles, and soon evolved into a series of magazines, such as Modern Electrics, Radio News and Science and Invention.

These publications promoted not only radio but an experimental technology combining picture with sound that Gernsback dubbed “television.” Among his fervent readers were Marconi, Edison, Tesla, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, and the unsung genius of television, Philo T. Farnsworth, as well as the RCA chief who pirated Farnsworth’s inventions to build a television empire, David Sarnoff.

Gernsback began adding fictional stories of the future, including serializing his own novel (Ralph 124C 41+) in Modern Electrics. Eventually in 1926 he started a magazine devoted entirely to such fictions called Amazing Stories. Its first issue included stories by Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells. He would republish many of their stories and novels in later issues (17 stories and six novels by Wells alone) but he also began receiving and publishing new stories.

Other such magazines emerged in the 1930s, printed on cheaper pulp paper to keep them inexpensive. (Gernsback’s penchant for paying writers poorly or not at all also contributed.) A genre was born, which after a false start or two, Gernsback named “science fiction.”

Many new stories followed the lead of the elders, creating variations on themes by Mary Shelley, Verne, Burroughs and especially Wells (in an appendix to his book Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, James Gunn produces his somewhat arbitrary list of the most prominent science fiction themes. A work by Wells was cited in 12 of the 14 categories, and was often the earliest.)

The earliest pulp stories tended to emphasize technologies at the expense of story, becoming known as “gadget fiction.” Still, new technologies naturally became an important topic in science fiction, especially as rocketry advanced and rockets to space became a foreseeable possibility. Many of the early 20th century pioneers of rocketry were inspired by science fiction (Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsy and German Hermann Oberth by Jules Verne, American Robert Goddard by H.G. Wells) and some wrote their own science fiction stories.

Other space technologies were envisioned first by fiction writers. Artificial space satellites were first proposed in novels as early as 1869 (Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon) and an Austrian engineer and a German science fiction writer each described a working space station in 1928.

“Astronautics is unique among all the sciences because it owes its origin to an art form," writes astronomical artist Ron Miller. "Long before engineers and scientists took the possibility of spaceflight seriously, virtually all of its aspects were explored first in art and literature, and long before the scientists themselves were taken seriously, the arts kept the torch of interest burning..."

This relationship remained strong through the golden age of the pulps in the 30s and 40s, when new names were established as science fiction masters. Several of the more prominent writers had science backgrounds: E.E. “Doc” Smith, author of the early Skylark series, had degrees in chemistry and physics, Isaac Asimov in biochemistry and Arthur C. Clarke in physics and mathematics.

The worlds of science fiction and science—or at least technology—sometimes overlapped more directly. Robert Heinlein, an engineer with graduate work in math and physics and a prominent science fiction author, helped design a high-altitude pressure suit for the U.S. Navy, which he based on the description of a space suit he read in a 1931 pulp story by Edmond Hamilton. Heinlein’s work on the suit was continued by another science fiction writer (and aeronautical engineer), L. Sprague de Camp.

Though early pulp science fiction tended to emphasize the wonders of technologies, at least some stories also dealt with perils, including a 1933 series by Laurence Manning in Wonder Stories (another Gernsback magazine) that at one point depicted a future Earth depleted and ruined by pollution. (The series was later published as a novel of future history called The Man Who Awoke.)

Although some science fiction stories took place in the historical present or past, most were set in a future. Inventing futures became a more serious business in 1938 when John W. Campell became editor of the magazine Astounding. According to Lester del Rey, “He wanted them [his writers] to live in their futures. And he wanted those futures to be livable.”

The writers responded by becoming “future-oriented, with the sense that the present was not the permanent center of everything: to them, the future was a real place. It was three-dimensional.”

To make these futures “real,” Campbell urged his writers to imagine the social implications of new technologies. He urged them to question their assumptions based on the present or even prior science fiction. “’Yes, but’ was one of his favorite openings to a discussion,” del Rey recalls.

Campbell felt that the “fiction” or literary aspect was at least as important as the “science,” so he encouraged his writers to focus on characters, and their responses to change. Those writers would include many of the enduring names in American science fiction, including Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt and Lester del Rey.

Campbell, according to del Rey, “had no desire to ‘bring science fiction into the mainstream. But he was totally serious about the fact that science fiction was the only fiction that dealt fully with modern reality.”

Meanwhile, two young science fiction pulp magazine fans in Ohio dreamed up a “strange visitor from another planet” who first appeared in Action Comics in 1938. Superman was the first dramatic character in a comic book and the first superhero—beginning a genre that dominates science fiction storytelling in big budget movies during the first decades of the 21st century.

From the beginning, the science fiction pulps inspired a unique readership. Pulps got so many unsolicited and thoughtful letters from readers that letters sections became regular and important features. Some of the most avid letter writers became story writers.

Writer, editor, impressario Forrest
Ackerman in costume from 1936 film
Things to Come, at WorldCom 1 in 1939.
Fans organized and held local, regional and finally national science fiction conventions, interacting with writers and editors—the first such fan gatherings ever held (apart from a few clubbier groups such as Sherlock Holmes devotees.) Fans had their own newsletters and developed their own vocabulary. All the aspects of the huge conventions associated with television and movies—including the costumes and role-playing—originated with the pulp science fiction conventions.

The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York in 1939, a few miles away from the World’s Fair and its three-dimensional future that fans could walk around in. A pulp editor told an audience, “I didn’t think you fans could be so damn sincere.”

He promptly commissioned Edmond Hamilton to write the Captain Future series for such young fans. Though it derived from the team of heroes myths such as Jason and the Argonauts, Captain Future and his specialized trio of misfits (a robot, an android and a disembodied brain) became a template for subsequent science fiction and superhero adventures.

Though much of the best science fiction in the first half of the 20th century appeared in pulps or was written by pulp authors, the genre became to some extent defined by lesser work. Pulp science fiction was often simplistic, dressing up standard conflicts in space suits, with one dimensional characters (though not always the muscled heroes and voluptuous damsels of the bold cover art, which might have nothing to do with the stories inside.) Stories featuring attacks by a “bug-eyed monster” were so frequent as to earn that subgenre name.

With their striking but sometimes lurid covers, cheap paper and purple prose, the science fiction pulps defined the genre as a poor and suspect relation of mainstream publishing. At a time when any kind of space travel was considered crazy fantasy, their obsessive fans with such weird preoccupations as space aliens and the future added to the growing isolation of science fiction.

Yet veteran science fiction writer and editor Lester del Rey argued that the pulps and the genre characteristics were crucial to science fiction’s development. Not only did the magazines foster friendships and an international network of associations in a “genuine subculture” with its own beliefs and traditions, but “to some extent, science fiction has developed its own ethics and values.”

Another factor created critical and audience distance. With the rise of what came to be called “sociological science fiction” in the pulps, stories began to examine possible consequences of technology, as well as critiquing society more generally. As U.S. society became more conformist, science fiction could be annoyingly subversive.

The science fiction pulps prospered in the 1930s and 40s, gradually diminishing in the later 50s and 60s. By then, a few science fiction authors were being published in mainstream magazines, and the baby boom generation’s first forays into adolescence led to several series of hardcover novels designed for young readers. (The difference, according to Heinlein was that the books for juveniles “are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don’t mind big words.”)

Heinlein’s sequence of novels for young readers was among the most successful. Another was the Winston Science Fiction Series, featuring a number of authors including Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond F. Jones, Poul Anderson, Ben Bova and Lester del Rey.

Those books led to a growing market for science fiction novels, especially in paperback, and some became best-sellers. But the taint of the genre remained, so that well into the 21st century, science fiction works and writers, and even actors and everyone outside the effects and costume departments of science fiction films and television, almost never got the big prestige prizes.

A telling paradox of the genre might be that while science fiction doesn’t deal as overtly with personal or emotional matters as more accepted fictions, it evokes strong emotion in readers. But these tales inspire feelings that mainstream stories don’t stir as powerfully, such as wonder, amazement and a sense of possibility.

The inside cover illustration of all the Winston SF novels--For
young readers like me who read library copies without dust
jackets, this was the memorable image.
This is perhaps why the realists of the fantastic often appeal to the young. Isaac Asimov remembered devouring the stories in a new pulp magazine: “when every word was fire, and when the print itself, the images it provoked, the smell of the pulp paper, the feel and weight of the magazine, all combined into a vivid and agonizing transport because I wanted to be part of the story and couldn't…" These science fiction stories "ravished my soul and opened it to a music of the spheres that few can hear…"

In the 1960s the aging writer Henry Miller recalled his youth poring over Rider Haggard's tales in a secret hillside cave with his blood brothers. "...these books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training…..Our grown-up boys, the scientists, prate about the imminent conquest of the moon; our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment's notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond. They beg our supposedly superior intellects to furnish them with a new cosmogony and a new cosmology. They have grown intolerant of our na├»ve, limited, antiquated theories of the universe."

“Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. But these books speak not only to boys.

The young Ursula LeGuin shared copies of Thrilling Wonder Stories with her brother, making favorite phrases from the stories a part of their secret language.

Young Margaret Atwood hid from homework in the basement by reading Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father.

“Wells’ fictions were the first books I read,” proclaimed the erudite scholar and writer Jose Luis Borges. “Perhaps they will be the last.”

They were responding to the age-old fascination of stories. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle," Vladimir Nabokov remarked. "That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."

That little shiver—of hope or of horror—was leading to the future.

All of which prompts (but does not beg) the question: What is science fiction? And what is its role in exploring the soul of the future?

To be continued...Prior posts in the series can be accessed by clicking on the Soul of the Future label below.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The News

I have recognized that the function of the news for me is torture.  So I avoid it as much as possible these days.

Having let it largely pass me by for weeks now, while I turned my serious attention to subjects that require a larger perspective, a greater expanse of time to consider for cause and effect, I can see a little more calmly that, despite the quickly replaced headlines and new outrages,  nothing much on the political scene is changing or is likely to change.

That this administration is the most morally shameful in my lifetime won't change (and considering that I said the same ten years ago of the Bush II reign, it is even more sobering.)  I grieve for the lives damaged, as I do for the larger effects on the present and the future.  But being tortured by the news doesn't change any of that.

The combined and related effects of the climate crisis, population growth with its carbon pollution implications and species extinctions require major and concentrated efforts in order to forestall civilization-threatening consequences. Those efforts are still insufficient, and without the urgent and comprehensive commitment necessary. Even the resilience of the existing institutions within the federal government and the western allies that could help ameliorate the challenging consequences, is being depleted and damaged.  That won't change with this regime (except to get worse), nor will the consequences.

Nothing in Washington will change, at least until the November elections, but only if Democrats win control of Congress, and win overwhelmingly otherwise.  Even if that happens, the task of slowing down the damage, let alone stopping it, will take years, and just repairing the damage done could take many years. Meanwhile the time that has been lost is probably lost forever.

Some of the news leaks through to me, but it hasn't changed my perspective.  While the antipresident's statements and behavior in Europe are shocking, they aren't surprising.  Whether or not he is being essentially blackmailed by the Russians, his motives are plain and predictable in denying Russian interference.  Like any tyrant, he fears nothing more than threats to the legitimacy of his power, in this case to his own election.  His statements were a desperately global attempt to discredit the special investigator, preemptively tainting the findings that are yet to be known.  And until Congress is out of Republican control, those findings won't matter either.

I don't criticize others for being more involved and especially more active.  More power to them.  But I'm picking my spots, and they are few.  Obsessing over the news is not one of them.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Soul of the Future: Realists of the Fantastic

“The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories about human heroes who venture into the myth-countries at the risk of their lives, and bring back tales of the world beyond men.”
Paul Zweig

"What is imagination? Perhaps it is a shadow of the intangible truth, perhaps it is the soul's thought!"
H.Rider Haggard

Our last episode of Soul of the Future linked The Time Machine to other famous works by H.G. Wells, and promised a further link to our contemporary mode of exploring the future. 

By the time he died in 1946, H.G. Wells had authored more than 100 books. In his fifty year writing career, he wrote novels, short stories, essays, newspaper columns, political commentaries, an autobiography and books on science and history—notably the Outline of History, which was an international best seller for decades. He became an inspiration for several generations and famous around the world. He had private audiences in the United States with President Theodore and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in Russia with Lenin and Stalin.

But the novels that remain his best known more than a century later—The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men In The Moon-- were all written in the first decade of his publishing life, and most appeared before the twentieth century began.

For the first 30 years of his career however, none of them was called “science fiction.” The term, and the genre itself, did not yet exist.

Instead Wells was spoken and written about as simply a writer, and his books were evaluated on their merits.  Other writers in particular welcomed him to contemporary literature. Novelist Henry James praised him. Novelist Ford Maddox Ford called him an “Authentic, real Genius. And delightful at that...And all great London lay prostrate at his feet.”

But another novelist came closest to naming the special qualities of these first novels that (together with his short stories) would birth a genre. In a letter praising The Invisible Man, Joseph Conrad began with the salutation: “O Realist of the Fantastic!”

With these early novels and stories, Wells had drawn on particular elements of the ongoing literary tradition, especially prominent in the 19th century: adventure stories and fantastic tales.

Tales of adventure employed techniques of realism (factual detail, description, etc.) not only from the prominent realistic novels of the era (Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others who were as well known at the time) but from popular non-fiction accounts of explorations in previously unknown parts of the world, culminating in accounts of polar expeditions.

Realistic novels tended to be set in familiar cities and towns, centering on individuals and class differences. Adventure stories were more about remote places and cultural differences, but above all, they concerned human characters in the context of the non-human, especially of nature and natural forces.

Still, they were considered mainstream literature, and their authors included Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped), Rudyard Kipling’s stories set in India, the American frontier tales of James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte, and the early sea stories of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad.

These fictions had their roots in some of the oldest stories known, for whatever else they represent, the great mythic tales of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Song of Roland and the tales of Robin Hood, were grounded in adventure.

By the 19th century, science and technology were becoming elements of adventure. Voyages of the era were often described as scientific explorations, and the thrill of the unknown was likely a factor in the immense popular interest in science throughout the century.

The first popular novelist to place new and imagined technologies at the center of his adventures was 19th century French writer Jules Verne. Among his immense volume of novels and stories were old-fashioned adventure tales, but his phenomenal 54-novel sequence of Extraordinary Voyages employed technologies of the time and of the future in voyages to the moon, the bottom of the sea and the center of the Earth.

The fantastic tale was a second style of story that literary eminence Italo Calvino called "one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth century narrative." There were a few specialists in these tales (  E.T. A. Hoffman, Lewis Carroll and other authors ostensibly writing for children) but almost every prominent literary writer composed at least one, including Henry James, Hawthorne, Balzac, Dickens, Twain, Turgenev and Oscar Wilde ( “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”)

These tales were often visionary, sometimes mystical, and could be read as metaphor or allegory. However many tended towards the Gothic and grotesque (ghost stories or involving gruesome death) as well as the uncanny or apparently impossible. The exemplar of that strain of fantastic tale was Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote stories that would later be considered forerunners of not only the horror genre, but of detective stories and science fiction.

The fantastic tale had roots in the 18th century Wonder Stories in France as well as ancient fables and stories of the gods. It also began to use the possibilities of science to drive the story, most famously in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. This, too, was a natural outcome, since new technologies often do what had previously been considered fantasy.

Scholar Mark Rose broadens this category by invoking the literary classification called the romance, which emphasizes “marvels and adventures.” Historically these include quest tales and battles with dragons, and sometimes involve magic. Indeed, Wells described his own most famous tales as “scientific romances.”

The major techniques of the adventure story and fantastic tale overlap and interpenetrate. Fantastic tales attempt a background of realism while adventure stories—particularly tales of exploration—feature marvels and wonder.

This 1935 film version was one of many.
By the late 19th century the two forms were beginning to blend, for example in the popular work of H.Rider Haggard. His first novel, King Solomon’s Mine, was basically a tale of adventure, but he soon integrated elements of mysticism and myth in She (and even more prominently in its sequels.)

Of course, Wells also drew from other literary and non-literary works and traditions. As previously noted, Wells himself acknowledged a particular debt to Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, a kind of allegory or societal critique within a fantastic adventure—all important elements in later science fiction.

Wells also acknowledged his interest in the Romantic poets, especially Shelley, “a poet of science” as Brian Aldiss calls him. It was not until the English Romantics (according to Mark Rose) in the early 19th century that the dominant literary tradition showed much interest in the non-human world. With their evocations of Nature and interest in science, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats and other Romantics saw humanity within the context of Nature and its forces.

H.G. Wells by Yuri Pennenkov, illustration
accompanying Zamyatin essay
But the roots and resulting resonance of his stories go back much farther. In one of the most poetic and acute analyses of Wells’ work, Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin suggests that Wells evokes the woodland tales and magic stories deeply embedded in every known storytelling tradition, and relocates them in the concrete and electric modern cities, burgeoning with technology that performs acts previously viewed as magic.

“The motifs of the Wellsian urban fairy tale are essentially the same as those encountered in all other fairy tales: the invisible cap, the flying carpet” (which is the time machine, Zamyatin noted earlier), “dragons, giants, gnomes, mermaids and man-eating monsters.” Yet Wells’ tales are also scientific: “built upon brilliant and most unexpected scientific paradoxes. All his myths are as logical as mathematical equations. And this is why we, modern men, we, skeptics, are conquered by these logical fantasies, this is why they command our attention and win our belief.”

All of this is to make two related points pertaining to the future. First, that The Time Machine and similar Wells’ tales, now considered classics of science fiction, were seen at the time not as aberrations but as variations, extensions and updating of established forms. They weren’t consigned to the ghetto of a suspect genre. “Because the form had not been named yet,” noted editor and critic Frank D. McConnell, “ it was freer to associate itself with the great mainstream tradition of storytelling.”

The second point is that Wells’ stories did create something new, but it involved a synthesis of past forms and stories, including fable and myth, as well as strong elements of philosophy and what would become anthropology, psychology and sociology.

This synthesis survives to varying degrees and effects in the subsequent outpouring of stories by writers of something they call science fiction. Because of this synthesis, all these techniques, all these approaches, all these stories that in a real sense represent the soul of humanity, are employed in exploring the soul of the future.

With The Time Machine, Wells became (in McConnell’s words) “the sole and powerful creator of a new mode of storytelling: a mode that has increasingly, in all its complexity and in all its crudity, become the distinctive mythology of our time.”

Ironically, the literary and popular acceptance of the kind of storytelling in Wells’ early work tended to mask the identity of this mode. Wells influenced several prominent writers, including George Orwell, C.S. Lewis and perhaps the most obscure innovator and artist who followed in Wells’ footsteps, Olaf Stapledon, creator of Star Maker, the novel that science fiction historian and author Brian Aldiss calls “really the one great grey holy book of science fiction.”

“...Stapledon is the great classical example," Aldiss continues, "the cold pitch of perfection as he turns scientific concepts into vast ontological prose poems, the ultimate sf [science fiction] writer.” ( Stapledon’s influence will be discussed more specifically in the next section.)

These sporadic stories came and went, read and reviewed as individual works, with some commonalities and derivations, but with no special identity separating them from other stories.

It took a brash gadget-crazy American in the late 1920s to revive interest in these early Wells’ works as well as generate a still ongoing rampage of new stories in the genre he helped define, and (eventually) named "science fiction."

To be continued.  Prior posts in this series can be found by following the Soul of the Future label below.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Too Bad To Be True: Famous Psych Experiments And How They Lied

Towards the end of my relatively brief sojourn in a small editorial services company in the early 1990s, I had an official conversation with a management consultant hired to help us to--well, I was never quite sure what he was hired for.

 But he was a genial and intelligent older guy.  In the course of our conversation he told me about what is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment: for a simulation of a prison, students were split into two groups: guards and prisoners.  The social scientist conducting the experiment took the role of superintendent, and his assistant played the warden.  (More details of the experiment are on the wikipedia page.)

During the experiment the guards became authoritarian and even sadistic.  The prisoners became passive, and turned on each other.  What this all meant, the consultant said, was that we inevitably become our roles in an organization.  No matter how we think we will behave, our position in the power structure dictates how we actually will behave.   There could be no doubt of this, he said, because the experiment has been replicated many times.  He seemed to suggest he'd taken part in a similar experiment.

Shortly thereafter I left the organization, though not entirely because of this conversation, or the explanation it supposedly provided for how some people in the organization actually were behaving.  It was only recently that I learned that almost everything the consultant told me was untrue, overblown or based on fraud.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, a classic in psychology texts, was itself a fraud.  According to this recent article in Vox: "But its findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data — but because of deceit."
The guards were coached, a prisoner was acting.  It was fixed.  But this blatant fraud is only one of many, many lavishly publicized experiments called into question or proven to be bullshit.  The Vox article has many links to the various problems.

As supposedly scientific experiments, the biggest problem has been how few of these startling conclusions could be replicated in subsequent experiments.  (The consultant was quite wrong in saying the Stanford study was often replicated.  It was never successfully replicated.)

But even studies that apparently were replicated are rife with problems that belie their conclusions, including the most famous: the Miligram experiments in which test subjects repeatedly gave what they thought was an electric shock to a person they thought was another test subject, because they were told to do so.  Results showed a high percentage of participants kept on giving shocks even when the receiver was evidently in pain.

That initial experiment has also been called into question: "In 2012, Australian psychologist Gina Perry investigated Milgram's data and writings and concluded that Milgram had manipulated the results, and that there was "troubling mismatch between (published) descriptions of the experiment and evidence of what actually transpired. She wrote that "only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and of those, 66% disobeyed the experimenter.""

But this experiment apparently was replicated many times with the same conclusions--or was it?  Critics point out that failed attempts to replicate were unlikely to have been published.  A statistical study of the later experiments in various places and under various conditions showed that the percentage of those who gave the full shock treatment varied from 28% to 91%, which suggests at the very least that time, place and choice of test subjects matters a great deal.

A lot of these psych experiments just don't pass the smell test--the experiments are poorly designed, and the subject pool is too small, too limited (mostly white college kids) to merit universal conclusions.  (If you don't believe me, that's the more seasoned analysis of the eminent professor of psychology Jerome Kagan.)

Yet those universal conclusions and even more universal extrapolations are made, and not just by management consultants.  They are made above all by best-selling authors like Daniel Kahneman,  Robert Sapolsky and Dan Ariely.

In a review of Ariely's 2008 book Predictably Irrational for the San Francisco Chronicle--a review I consider now to be one of the best I wrote--I noted some of the psychological experiments he wrote about--which, as it happens, includes at least one thoroughly debunked since, as noted in the above Vox article.  I expressed my doubts about their conclusions (due especially to the age, racial and cultural biases inherent in testing mostly or only college students) but I also questioned the author's overall assertion: "While Ariely's stated goal is to understand the decision-making processes behind behavior ("yours, mine, and everybody else's"), he may be overreaching in the applicability of his conclusions. "We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains," he writes, but he presents no evidence of this causal relationship."

That is, not only aren't the experimental conclusions valid, but the reason he gives, while typical, is totally unsupported by other evidence: it's because of the wiring of our brains.

The metaphor of our minds or brains as computers, with certain aspects being "hard-wired," is deceptive enough when not taken so literally, though indeed most people who use the metaphor do take it this literally.

Our brains may be like computers in some respects, but mostly, not at all. And our brains or minds are definitely not actual computers, any more than they were telephone exchanges or steam engines or clockworks, which were the metaphors (often taken literally) of previous times.

There are, for one thing, no wires in our heads, hard or otherwise. It's amazing how glibly psychologists and economists assert they know anything about "wiring" in everybody's brains.  I doubt they know much about the wiring in their cars.

The Miligram experiments have been an obsession with me for years because of a personal connection.  They were conducted at Yale for years, from the early 1960s into the early 1970s.  I was in New Haven in 1970, and answered an ad in the newspaper for participants in an experiment--the ad was nearly identical to the ones from the 60s to entice participants to the Miligram experiments.

Those experiments depended on deception, beginning with their purpose.  Subjects volunteered for what they thought was an experiment in memory.  I was enticed by the ad--mostly by the money offered ($25 sticks in my mind), as I was at loose ends at the time.  So I called the number but instead of making an appointment immediately, I asked questions first.  I got only vague answers and I smelled deception, so I didn't participate.

Later I read accounts of these experiments, at least one of which claimed that nobody had refused to give the electric shocks as ordered. (The actual percentage registered in the first series was 65% compliance.)  I was furious. If I had participated, I certainly would have refused.  When I told my story to a prominent social scientist, he cautioned that I could not know how I would actually behave in the circumstances.

I may not know how I would respond under all circumstances, but I certainly do know how I would have responded under those circumstances.  If for no other reason, it was 1970 and I was 24!  I had long hair, I was a veteran peace activist and Vietnam war protester with a record of defying authority, including college science departments.  What's the likelihood that I would inflict pain on an innocent person because some asshole in a white coat told me I had to?

New Haven Green 1970
And of course it wouldn't just be me.  There were students on the streets angrily rebelling against college administrations, against participation of science departments in the military industrial complex, plus hippies and Yippies and so on gleefully defying authority in general.  The idea that any of them would sit there obediently pressing the button is ludicrous.

But then, they were unlikely to volunteer in the first place.  One also suspects that if they did, they likely would have been screened out.  Which is the larger issue in the test subject problem: who are these people who volunteer to be test subjects and why?  And conversely, who wouldn't even consider it?

What is the mindset of someone who volunteers, or who is doing it for the money?  If they do it for the money, aren't they predisposed to do what they're told?  And even volunteers--why would somebody volunteer for an experiment and then refuse to take part in it?  A volunteer would more likely have faith in the experimenters, in their expertise and in the scientific experiment.  These folks were self-selected to obey.

If the results were otherwise valid, some extrapolations might be possible--to volunteer soldiers following orders, or those who agree ideologically with the authority figures, or perhaps even with the social contract of doing the work you are assigned for the money you earn.  But not the kind of universal conclusions typically made because of what these experiments purport to prove.

Similarly, that people may violate their own morality at the behest of authority figures, or that people may find themselves committing acts because of the role or situation they would not have believed they would commit, are phenomena that have happened under real world conditions.  Atrocities are real, and happen with alarming frequency. But these experiments, however sensational, are not necessary to confirm this.  They just don't seem to be very enlightening on the question of why, let alone who, when or where.

Instead, they lead us farther from possible insights, and suggest that such behavior is determined for us all.  Hard-wired.  That is perniciously false.

Behavioral psychology is probably at the apex of its power and acceptance, at the same time as its methods are falling apart.  Other kinds of experiments are also being called into question, based for example on faulty statistical methodology or deception,  as well as the still poorly understood phenomenon of confirmation bias applied to experimental design and findings.

But a kind of confirmation bias on a larger scale is the most troubling, because such experiments confirm an ideology of determinism, of only mechanistic explanations, that dominates science.  In the life sciences particularly, the bias is towards the destructive side of human nature: violent instincts, individual competition, fights to the death.  It is against--and often doesn't see--social and conciliatory instincts, cooperation and empathy.  These were ideologically judged long ago to be evolutionary losers, selected out by the struggle for existence. There is perhaps less of this now, but it still seems to be the prevailing ideology.

These inflated conclusions supposedly confirmed by science are especially dangerous, because we begin to base our beliefs about society and ourselves on them, and therefore our behaviors and expectations.

Our societies and our lives within them are based on cooperation, conciliation, compassion and a shared sense of fairness. As individuals as well as groups,
we are mixed creatures, we are complex, as life and the world are complex.  In literature, if characters are internally compelled to act contrary to their morality we call it tragedy, not hard-wired or human nature.  It is part of a much more complex human nature.  We can to some extent govern our behavior through educated self-awareness and through culture.   If science can't acknowledge that, it isn't telling the truth.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sunshine On My Redwood

Sunshine on my redwood makes me happy. Click on photo to see what I mean.  Front yard in June.

Friday, July 06, 2018


Flower box in late June with a corner of the garden in front, created by Margaret and Siena.  More to come.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Under the Dome of Heat and History (Updated)

Under the Capitol Dome, the willful ignorant engage in political congress over nothing but their sad ambition.  Under the Washington dome of air traffic protection, top administrators look for the deal that makes them feel rich, and they never really do.  While their professional underlings sweat for the good of the country.  They are the air conditioned nightmare.

And now, under the heat dome that is expanding to eventually cover the contiguous United States, people and their infrastructure as well as all of life suffer.  The Washington Post:

"Since the past weekend, the first intense heat wave has kept a tight, sweaty grip on the eastern United States. As of Tuesday morning, about 80 million Americans were under some type of heat advisory. Forty-four of the 50 states expected to reach at least 90 degrees Tuesday afternoon. Expect both of those statistics to grow through the end of this week, as the brutal heat wave intensifies and expands to include the western part of the country.

On Monday, Washington, Philadelphia and New York all reported heat indexes — or “feels like” temperatures — in excess of 100 degrees. Record-warm overnight low temperatures were set in Albany and Burlington, Vt....

The Midwest has been roasting since the end of last week. Heat indexes this past weekend in Chicago were regularly in the 105-to-115-degree range. The excessive heat caused at least one road to buckle in Wisconsin, according to a contributor on Reddit’s r/weather forum. And a bridge was deformed because of the heat in Chicago, according to WREX...."

And it will continue and spread through the week:

"High pressure domes like this tend to dominate the atmospheric landscape, shunting the jet stream far to the north and keeping everything under them locked in a pattern of hot and humid weather.

Not only is the current upper-level high going to stick around, but also it’s going to become stronger and larger over the next several days. Over the weekend, the same ridge of high pressure that has been dominating the weather over the East will expand west. Forecast models expect the dome of high pressure will eventually encompass almost the entire Lower 48.

The extent of this heat wave over the weekend not only will be uncommon, but also the high pressure is going to be intense. So intense, in fact, it may lack historical precedent."

We used to call these "heat waves" but their length and intensity is turning them into slow motion Katrinas in terms of present suffering and long term consequences.  Everything about them was predicted in global heating models, in longitudinal studies, in the gathering of other historical data such as through the study of ancient ice.

So no surprise, only denial.

Those in command under the domes of decision,  you deserve to roast.  The rest of you under this heat dome this week, don't take it lightly: drink lots of water, stay out of the sun, stay as cool as you can.

Update: It's not just US. The Post follows up Wednesday with a global view:

From the normally mild summer climes of Ireland, Scotland and Canada to the scorching Middle East, numerous locations in the Northern Hemisphere have witnessed their hottest weather ever recorded over the past week.

Large areas of heat pressure or heat domes scattered around the hemisphere led to the sweltering temperatures.

No single record, in isolation, can be attributed to global warming. But collectively, these heat records are consistent with the kind of extremes we expect to see increase in a warming world."

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Meet My Moka

This is my new Moka.  This particular brand calls itself an Espresso Maker but purists say not.  It doesn't technically make espresso.  It is generally called a moka.
It's very simple, very quick and makes coffee that's close to espresso.  It's a simple design that has worked for generations.  These days mokas are aluminum, as this one is.
I just got this to replace one I've had for years.  I took photos of it while it was bright and shiny.  It won't look like this for long.  In fact, it no longer does.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Trinidad Trek

A sunny day, windy even on the Head until just about here, the last ocean side panorama just short of the summit.  Also where my camera batteries gave out.  But not my batteries--I made it to the summit again this year.  I mean, there were five year olds that did as well so it's not Mount Everest.  And I did resent the folks running up the trail.  But I enjoyed the climb and the various views, the greens and blues, the lights and darks, the smells of the trees and bushes, and especially a delicately lit bower near the summit where a bird sang to me.  It was either "Happy Birthday" or "Move Along, Nothing to See Here."

Never Die Young

This video clip from the Tonight Show starts with the best live version I could find of James Taylor doing his song "Never Die Young" which I post on the occasion of my 72nd birthday.  The 1988 clip continues with an interview in which JT is winsome but his prepared comic lines fall flat.  Still it's a charming interview. Sail on, sail on.

Turning 72: I Dwell in Possibility

It was a pretty good 72nd year.  No one close to me died, or came down with a serious illness or injury, though I certainly know people my age with significant health challenges.  The exception is our beloved cat Pema--we're currently nursing her through a terminal illness, making this a sad and anxious time. But as for my health, I'm looking forward to my annual trek up Trinidad Head later today. Yesterday I set my home court record with 7 straight midrange baskets (I can't in good conscience call them "jumpers") and 9 out of 10, before I missed two in a row.

I'm pleased with writing I did this past year, including what amounts to drafts of two short books which I have cleverly hidden within my blogs on the Internet.  My recollections--first of books, but especially of my senior year of college fifty years ago-- went very well, by my own lights anyway.  The process was fascinating. Reclaiming context through factual research seemed to evoke and free memories, some of which came to me in the act of writing.

Lately I've had episodes of visual memories, which have been rare before now. I'm not good at visualization.  "Imagine yourself on a beautiful beach" etc. has never worked for me as a meditation or relaxation technique, for example, if it depends on seeing it.  But lately, visual memories have come almost unbidden, and once I've had them (usually on the edge of sleep but not always), they more or less remain accessible.

The past, both culturally and personally, remains my focus, my fireplace (which is what "focus" means.)  I'm interested in depth, reiteration, a more thorough exploration, rather than new places and experiences.  Fortunately I don't have to defend that choice.  "Don't Want To, Don't Need To, Can't Make Me, I'm Retired."

At the same time, I am exploring new ideas, though they tend to be more like going farther along a path I darted down for awhile before.  Some of these bear upon that other area of concern, the future.

The future has looked dark many times in my life, probably most times.  But there was always an idea or two that suggested the possibility of light coming into being. That is less so now.

The newest ideas I'm still learning about are actually 20 or 30 years old.  It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, that the scientific ideas informing the Gaia hypothesis were percolating.  Its basis was formulated even earlier, in the late 1960s when I was in college (but it was so unorthodox that it never would have been mentioned in a science class.)  In studying the atmosphere of the planet Mars, James Lovelock discovered that the physics and chemistry of that planet predicted what it was like.  But the physics and chemistry of Earth does not describe its actual atmosphere.  There is another element determining and regulating Earth's atmosphere, and keep its temperature fairly constant despite changes in the heat coming from the sun.   That element is life.

The Earth is self-organizing and self-regulating through its specific lifeforms. Living systems, from the smallest bacteria to the entire surface and atmosphere, self-maintain.  That makes the Earth a single system, and by some definitions,  a kind of organism.

The implications were vast, and go beyond ecology--the study of the Earth as our home--to the study of the Earth as our body.  The idea of Gaia was an immediate magnet for various New Age enthusiasts but in the late 1980s, William Irwin Thompson and the Lindisfarne Association published a couple of collections of essays derived from conferences the Association had held since the early eighties. (Gaia: A Way of Knowing, and Gaia 2: Emergence).

The authors were serious people, including James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, the scientist who helped him develop the hypothesis, as well visionary cybernetic pioneer Gregory Bateson, visionary neurobiologist Franciso Varela, physicist Arthur Zajonc, botanist and popular writer Wes Jackson, economist and futurist Hazel Henderson and W.I Thompson himself, who promoted the idea that Gaia could be the guiding idea of cultural transformation in the 1990s.

As far as I can tell, there didn't turn out to be a guiding idea of cultural transformation in the 1990s, nor do I know of any guiding idea since.  At best, some segments of society sort of caught up to ecological ideas of the 1960s and 70s.  Others got sidetracked by computer technology to contemplate bogus ideas like "the singularity" or just got sucked into the social media vacuum.

But lately I have been reading Slanted Truths, a book of the mid-90s, a somewhat shaped collection of essays by Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan. (He is also the son of Carl Sagan, and has taken on his father's job of popularizing science, though he's much more his mother's son in the science he attempts to popularize.)

Their essays were mostly published separately in periodicals and are often repetitive (which is actually good, since the ideas are still new and the science unfamiliar) so it is an immersive experience.  (These writings are however more coherent than either of the authors speaking: Dorion does not have his father's skills and both are pretty unorganized in the events YouTube has preserved, though Margulis is nevertheless magnetic and occasionally mesmerizing.)

Margulis herself transformed life sciences by concentrating on microorganisms, and showing the crucial role they played in evolution.  She also showed that these are the organisms upon which Gaia's ability to self-regulate depend, more than any other.  Bacteria is the essential lifeform to maintain the life of planet Earth, including its atmosphere.

I am reading this in the context of a year in which it seems that the collapse of civilization within the next century, and perhaps the fall of the American Republic much sooner, seems more and more likely.  On a somewhat longer timeline, the fate of the human species is in question.  If the climate crisis and mass extinction are as bad as they seem they will be, homo sapiens may be facing enough reduction that extinction is possible.  In a previous climate crisis, homo sapiens were down to perhaps 2500 beings in one small location.  Coming back depends on how extensive the changes are, and for how long.  Nuclear weapons complicate this further.

Mass extinctions may wipe out all large mammals and perhaps too many keystone species we don't even know about.  But the ultimate threat to life seems to depend on what happens to the oceans, and whether we end up killing them.

Margulis and Sagan leave me with at least this hope for the future of life: that bacteria are likely to endure and adapt, and since from them in time came all of the species we know, they can just start again.  Raccoons or rats or even ants may be faster to develop but then, does the planet want to go through all this again?  I sometimes wonder whether a species that invented helicopter gunships even deserves to survive.  Maybe evolution will settle next time on a scenario like that in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos, in which descendants of humans are more like porpoises, who frolic in pools with fins, incapable of building anything.

For the near future, Gaia offers some possibility of offsetting the worst effects of global heating, in that we don't understand exactly how life regulates the atmosphere.  Perhaps that self-regulation can overcome excessive global heating, although it seems there is unlikely to be enough time to adapt.  But maybe.

Which suggest another source of hope: our ignorance.  We think we know a lot, but all we've learned are a few limited mechanisms and how to do some stuff, mostly through trial and error.  We've just done too much of it, on too large a scale. Because in part there are too many of us.

In fact we know almost nothing about our world and our universe.  Steven Wright used to joke: "I bought a packet of powdered water but I don't know what to add to it."  We don't really even know what water is.  We certainly can't make the stuff.

We've made up all these categories and theories that soon reach their limits, though we insist they are universal, they are "laws."  Science has at least acknowledged that Newtonian physics doesn't apply in all realms. (And that's because we know how to do some stuff using the math of quantum mechanics, but we have no idea why they work.)  It took recent scientists like Lynn Margulis to begin showing that Darwinian evolution in its traditional definition doesn't apply to everything alive, or even to the origin of species.

Margulis and other microbiologists also showed that many of the assumptions made about how life works in general was based only on larger lifeforms: animals and plants.  But many of those "rules" don't apply to microorganisms such as bacteria.  Either these rules operated in a limited field or they are generally mistaken.

We use definitions as tools and then get captured by our definitions.  The most interesting philosophical essay I read this year, by Galen Strawson, suggests that the conundrum of consciousness as a non-physical phenomenon may lie in a restricted definition of "physical."   The universes of the very small and the very large have shot down a lot of our middle-range assumptions and definitions.  With dark matter, dark energy and all the other more or less theoretical aspects of the universe, exactly what "physical" means is (or should be) in doubt.

So maybe there's something we'll learn that we can't now foresee, something that will make enough of a difference to avoid catastrophe.

For those younger than me who will live in the future, hope is a daily commitment to make things better.  Hope isn't what you feel, it's what you do.  For me, looking at a future that extends beyond imagination, I am buoyed by possibilities we can begin to imagine but can't quite imagine, way beyond anything fantasized in Silicon Valley.

So I greet the beginning of my 73rd year with a poem by Emily Dickinson.  She was a favorite of Lynn Margulis (though admittedly not of mine)--I saw a line of this one that was sort of quoted by Dorion Sagan.  The whole poem however is what I want to say:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

P.S. I've added a "birthdays" label to such posts in prior years.  But two of the more extensive are on another blog: Turning 60 and Turning 65.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Senator Evil

I'm going on a news fast and this is my last topical post for awhile.  In light of the latest news concerning the Supreme Court, I wanted to share Jonathan Chiat's observation:

Democrats have won the national vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, which, with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, will have resulted in the appointment of eight of the Supreme Court’s nine justices. And yet four of those justices will have been appointed by presidents who took office despite having fewer votes than their opponent.

There are lots of reasons for this short-circuiting of democracy on the road to authoritarianism but at this moment I think mostly of someone who is as close to purely evil as anyone I can even imagine: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.  He is completely without patriotism, statesmanship or any sense of justice.  And he has driven a dagger into the American system of government.

After defying the Constitution's intent for the sitting President to fill a Supreme Court vacancy by denying to even allow hearings for President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court--a step no other congressional leader has ever dared--on the pretext that the seat fell vacant too close to an election (though it was 8 months before the 2016 election), McConnell will try to ram through the antipresident's nominee a few weeks before the 2018 elections.  He will do so without the slightest shame for his own blatant hypocrisy.

This was not the first nor the last of his shameful acts, his evil acts, utterly at odds with the constitutional government our founders established.  In January 2009 he held a meeting with congressional Republicans to announce a strategy: Republicans would violently oppose every proposal that President Obama made to Congress regardless of its merits, regardless if it was something Republicans had previously supported and even if it was something Republicans had previously proposed.

Then in 2016 McConnell compounded his irresponsible opposition to the President's constitutional function in nominating a Supreme Court Justice by committing treason.  When briefed on the US intelligence community assessment that a foreign adversary, Russia, was attempting to interfere in the 2016 elections, he refused to condemn it in a joint statement with President Obama, and threatened the President, telling him that if he took action or made strong public statements, he would accuse him of partisan political motives.

McConnell doesn't care if we have a chief executive taking orders from the Kremlin.  McConnell doesn't care about anything but winning partisan political battles, pleasing his big bucks overseers and keeping power.

Hell has room for lots of Republicans.  McConnell gets pride of place in the inner circle.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

US District Court Order: Find the Babies Now

On a day when the Supreme Court sanctified discrimination on the basis of religion by upholding Homegrown Hitler's Muslim country travel ban, a federal District Court ordered the government to reunite separated children with their parents, and to stop indiscriminate separation of families at the border.

Specifically the judge ordered that all children under 5 be reunited with their parents within 14 days, and all other children within 30 days.  Additionally, every child must be able to speak to a parent by telephone within 10 days.

The order was the result of a class action suit before a District Court in San Diego.  The judge, Dana Sabraw, was appointed by G.W. Bush.  The order read in part:

"The facts set forth before the court portray reactive governance — responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the government's own making," he wrote. "They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution."

Earlier in the day, seventeen states sued the federal government over the separations:

States are now seeking a court order to reunite families and end the separation practice by declaring it "contrary to the Constitution".  Tuesday's lawsuit states that Mr Trump's order does not mandate the end of family separation and says nothing about reuniting families who have already been separated.

It also calls the policy "an affront" to the states' interests in maintaining standards of care for children and preserving parent-child relationships. "The policy, and the administration's related conduct, has caused severe and immediate harm to the States and their residents."

Both suits cite laws insuring that children remain with their parents; taking children away requires due process.  They accuse the administration of breaking laws.

It's not clear what effect the San Diego order has on these suits brought by the states of California, Washington, Massachusetts, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia plus the District of Columbia.

Where Are the Babies?

The question is Lawrence O'Donnell's, and it is the pertinent one.  It has been widely reported that infants have been separated from mothers at the border.  It is an human rights outrage that it is not a matter of public information where these babies are.

Reporters and Members of Congress have been given limited tours in a few child prisons.  They have seen a few infants, mixed in with older children, at some part of the process.  (Some of these children have already been moved several times.) But basically the infants are being hidden.  Which raises the question: why?

So where are the babies? What kind of care are they receiving?  What is the state of their health?   How many have been hospitalized?  And a question that by now is extremely pertinent: have any of them died?

Some of the captive children are in foster care homes (as in New York, where they sleep in foster homes and report for duty at the prison during the day.)  How were these foster homes selected?  What standards did they have to meet?  On what basis were children accepted into these homes?  Are they in the charge of "foster parents?"  What is the status of these babies?

This has gone on a long time and it is likely to go on much longer. Reporters can't find evidence that the government can really even match parents with their children, so reunification, if indeed it occurs, will take much more time.  In one prison the average time children have been in captivity is over 50 days now.  With new camps being prepared to imprison families and to separately imprison children on military bases, how much longer are they going to be hidden in these black sites, as if they are terrorists?  Or are they already on the baby market?

Until there is a complete public accounting of these children, especially these infants, all speculation as to their welfare is reasonable.

The United Nations should be sending in teams to do an accounting of these babies as an emergency humanitarian mission.  For this is not just a national scandal, it is a matter of global relevance.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Captive Families: The Suffering Has Not Ended

The administration has succeeded in getting their human rights abuses at the border off the front page.  A phony executive order (which few believe is even legal, let alone effective), a temporary suspension of arrests and imprisonments until new military concentration camps are built, and a few photos purporting to be of reunited families, have opened up media space to the usual trivia and a few other important stories, like the onrushing recession caused by the antipresident's tariffs by whim.

But the suffering has not ended.  The system is still in chaos, and the information flow is only slightly improved.  Stories abound that asylum seekers are being told that they will be reunited with their children only if they volunteering return to the central American country where (in many cases) their lives and the lives of their children are endangered.  And, some observe, there is no reason to believe these reunions will actually occur.

Meanwhile the military continues to build its tent cities concentration camps.  First person accounts emerge of horrible prison conditions, and even camp managers are speaking out about this stupid, cruel policy that is still harming children.

Immigration is turning out to be Homegrown Hitler's Big Lie of the year.  In fact, the vast majority of immigrants in the US are here legally.  Applying for political asylum is a legal process.  The proportion of the population comprised of illegal immigrants in the US is very low, about 3%.  Their share of the job market is the lowest in the western democracies.  Per capita, they commit fewer crimes in the US than white native born Americans.

Harley-Davidson isn't moving jobs to Europe because of immigrants into America. That company is doing so because of the antipresident's tariffs.  The racist hysteria that grips the R party is an adrenalin diversion, a pernicious denial.  And it is far from over.

Friday, June 22, 2018

America Torturing Children...and Their Parents (With Update)

From the Guardian:

"Here’s a quick update from the United Nations human rights office, which has said that Trump’s decision to stop separating children from their parents doesn’t go far enough and may amount to torture. From the AP:

Human rights office spokeswoman Ravini Shamdasani said Friday that “children should never be detained for reasons related to their or their parents’ migration status”.

Shamdasani urged the US to overhaul its migration policy, such as by relying on “non-custodial and community-based alternatives” under the “logic of care” rather than that of law enforcement."

Why would they say that?  A pediatrician who has worked for a decade with migrant children talked to the New Yorker about what she saw and experienced in one of the prison camps.  For instance:

The number of young children in detention facilities rose sharply. “The population I’ve been starting to see is younger, and it scares me,” Hart said. “These are little people, little babies. And they are ill-equipped to fend for themselves. They’re so totally traumatized. They don’t cry like normal kids. They don’t interact like normal kids.”

The doctor--Alica Schaffer--met an eight year old boy, surrounded by four men watching him:

"The boy had been in custody for over a month. One of his guardians told me that he had been ‘acting out’ and threatening to harm himself, by jumping from his bed. This man told me, ‘I’m his clinician,’ but he was definitely not a doctor. I don’t know if he’s a social worker, a medical assistant, a housekeeper. I have no clue. But he obviously had been granted some sort of authority in regard to assessing children and determining what their needs are. He wouldn’t provide basic background. I couldn’t find out any information because he would say, ‘I’m not at liberty to tell you that’ and ‘You don’t need to know that,’ even though a lot of my questions were relevant to taking care of the child. I was asking things like ‘Where are his parents?’

“This boy seemed devastated—quiet and withdrawn. He barely spoke. I asked if he needed a hug. I kneeled down in front of the recliner, and this kid just threw himself into my arms and didn’t let go. He cried and I cried. And to think he’s been in a facility for a month without a hug, away from his parents, and scared, and not knowing when he’ll see them again or if he’ll see them again. While I held him, I heard the men standing behind me muttering that I was ‘rewarding his bad behavior.’ Thankfully, it was in English, so I don’t think the boy understood what they were saying, but it just revealed their attitudes toward these kids."

Meanwhile the apparent White House change is policy is creating more chaos, and more captives.  The New York Times reports:

Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon is preparing to shelter as many as 20,000 migrant children on four military bases: Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas; Fort Bliss in El Paso; Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Tex.; and Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Tex.
It was not immediately clear on Friday where the parents of children would go if they will no longer be separated from their families."

And that's not all:

"The U.S. Navy is preparing plans to construct sprawling detention centers for tens of thousands of immigrants on remote bases in California, Alabama and Arizona, escalating the military’s task in implementing President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for people caught crossing the Southern border, according to a copy of a draft memo obtained by TIME."

Update: The LA Times reports via Time that one of these bases is the US Marine base at Camp Pendelton, where preparations are underway to build a tent city "to detain as many as 47,000 migrants from Central America and other locations."

The militarization of concentration camps is a frightening change and profound threat to democracy.

How long will children continue to be imprisoned, with or without parents?  If the administration gets its way in court, indefinitely.  The Guardian again:
Also Friday, a group of nearly a dozen independent human rights experts commissioned by the UN said the new US policy “may lead to indefinite detention of entire families in violation of international human rights standards”.

  And indefinitely could be a very long time.  This NYTimes story also says:

"Federal immigration courts faced a backlog of more than 700,000 cases in May, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University. In some courts, the average wait for an immigration hearing was over 1,400 days; some hearings are being scheduled beyond 2021 before an available slot on the docket is found."